The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes take a step closer to reaching an agreement on water rights across the reservation. This is the last of Montana’s Tribes to reach agreement, the first was reached in 1985 on the Fort Peck Reservation, and the Blackfeet signed an agreement in 2009.
The Hellgate Treaty of 18-55 affirms the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes right to hunt on traditional lands, and fish where the Tribes have traditionally fished. That second part, fishing, is why when considering water rights for the Tribes the map goes way beyond the borders of the Flathead Reservation. Attorney Jay Weiner with the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission says “that secures for them not just water rights on their reservation, but also provides a strong legal basis for them asserting their water rights off their reservation, outside their reservation to protect stream flows for traditional fishery purposes as well.”
The Commission was created in 1979 to negotiate water rights with federal agencies and Tribal governments. Weiner says another complication in the process stems from a Montana Supreme Court Decision from 1996. This decision took water permitting control out of the hands of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation “and as a result of that regulatory void, one of the things we’ve had to do in these negotiations is try to figure out what the regulatory framework will be on the reservation going forward,” Weiner said, “that is also a challenge that we have not had to face in our other tribal negotiations.”
The Tribes were unable to comment by news time. The Commission and the Tribes have come up with a settlement going out for public comment. This settlement creates a regulatory body made up of representatives picked by the tribal council, the governor, and a fifth member appointed by the other board members. The Department of Interior would appoint a sixth, non-voting member.
The Settlement also protects verified existing uses. Homesteading claims across the Mission Valley post-date the 1855 Treaty, and the area has numerous ranches and farms, many using irrigation systems running valley-wide.
“People in Montana have been using water under state law for 120, 130, 140 years, and a whole way of life has grown up around those water uses. And we try, in these negotiations, to balance the reliance on that water that people have come to have, alongside the recognition for the Tribes of these very senior water rights that federal law provides that they’re entitled to,” Weiner said. Weiner says there hasn’t been a legally valid way to dig a new well on the Reservation since the 1996 state Supreme Court ruling. He says the Commission and the Tribes have been working on making sure existing uses are protected, and says if the proposed settlement is accepted it wouldn’t change the way people are using the water right now.
“What really does change as a result of the settlement going into effect is that there would be a clear regulatory authority for authorizing new uses of water on the reservation, and authorizing changes of existing uses on the reservation,” Weiner said.
Meetings to collect public comment begin the last week of November and cover a big section of western Montana.
Because the Tribes water rights include ensuring adequate stream flows to preserve native fisheries the Settlement includes portions of the Kootenai River, Swan River and Upper Clark Fork.
The Tribes, state, and federal representatives will meet again on December 19th. From there the Settlement goes to the state legislature, the US Congress, and the CSKT Council for approval.
For more information, including copies of the proposed Compact and Ordinance, visit:
Public Meeting Schedule
LIBBY- Monday November 26, 2012 Time: 7:00 pm. Location: City of Libby – Ponderosa Meeting Room, 952 East Spruce Street, Libby, MT
BIGFORK – Tuesday November 27, 2012 Time: 1:00 pm. Location: Bethany Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall (Basement), 8559 MT HWY 35, Bigfork, MT
KALISPELL – Tuesday November 27, 2012 Time: 7:00 pm. Location: Outlaw Inn Hotel Winchester Room, 1701 US HWY 93 South, Kalispell, MT
POLSON – Wednesday November 28, 2012 Time: 9:00 am. Kwa TaqNuk Resort, 49708 US HWY 93 East, Polson, MT
HOT SPRINGS – Wednesday November 28, 2012 Time: 3:00 pm. Salish Senior Center, 214 N. Spring Street, Hot Springs, MT
THOMPSON FALLS – Wednesday November 28, 2012 Time: 7:30 pm. Thompson Falls High School Band Room, 601 Golf Street, Thompson Falls, MT
ARLEE – Thursday November 29, 2012 Time: 10:00 am. Arlee Senior Center, 106 Wessinger Street, Arlee, MT
HAMILTON – Thursday November 29, 2012 Time: 3:00 pm. Ravalli County Administrative Center, Third Floor Conference Room, 215 South 4th Street, Hamilton, MT
MISSOULA – Thursday November 29, 2012 Time: 7:30 pm. Double Tree Edgewater, Blackfoot Room, 100 Madison, Missoula, MT
DEER LODGE – Tuesday December 4, 2012 Time: 9:00 am. Powell County Community Center, 416 Cottonwood Avenue, Deer Lodge, MT
PHILIPSBURG – Tuesday December 4, 2012 Time: 2:00 pm. Granite County Museum, 135 N. Sansome Street, Phillipsburg, MT
OVANDO – Tuesday December 4, 2012 Time: 7:30 pm. Ovando School Gym, 108 Birch Street, Ovando, MT